7 The Purpose of a College Education

Many students are surprised to learn that their view of college is different from many other students and their professors. Some students see college as a job training process: they enroll, choose a major that matches a career, graduate, and enter the workforce. Some students do follow this path. Other students may see college as a series of “hoops” that they must jump through in order to receive accreditation for a particular career path. For these students, college may be frustrating; they may ask themselves, and their professors, “Why do I have to take an English, math, psychology, or biology class when I’m not majoring in English, math, psychology, or biology?”

One answer to that question is that a bachelor’s degree doesn’t signal job training; instead, a B.A. or B.S. degree shows both a basic mastery in a and a general education. School trustees, boards of governors, state boards of education, and accreditation agencies require a broad range of courses to ensure that college graduates have a wide and fairly balanced range of knowledge. This is why a biology major may have to take an art class, and why an art major may find herself in a biology class. A mission of many colleges is to create graduates who are good citizens; to be a good citizen, one must have a range of knowledge and know how to apply it.
Another answer is that mastering any discipline will require skills in other fields. Often, a major’s required courses include important knowledge from other disciplines, such as a sociology major requiring a statistics class. If you’re frustrated by the university’s writing requirements, try to think about what kind of professional communication won’t require you to write. Scientists need writing skills to apply for grants, or to explain the importance of their research. A business person will need writing skills to communicate clearly with employees. No matter what career path you may follow, you will need to write.
College is also the first step a person makes to become an expert in a subject. From kindergarten to high school, students learn basic knowledge: how to read, how to write, how to perform basic arithmetic, etc. Many classes at this level require memorization, as students are learning their subjects’ foundational material. When students choose a major in college, they’re beginning the process of becoming experts in a . They study all aspects of a subject learning the broad range of their major and what it means to study that subject. Some students may decide to continue their studies after earning their bachelor’s degree. Those students continue their education in graduate school and earn master’s or doctorate degrees. They learn increasingly specialized knowledge in their graduate coursework, as they will be striving to become experts who create knowledge and guide a discipline.
Universities are institutions in which knowledge is created, shared, and ultimately used to solve larger issues (specific to academic disciplines) that will, hopefully, make the world a better place. Hopefully, you will contribute to these larger conversations as you work to find your place in society and develop your skills in a way to make you a productive and successful citizen.

Academic Disciplines

In the previous chapter, we discussed how a college degree is the first step towards mastering a . What do we mean by “disciplines” or “academic disciplines”? When you decide your major, you are committing to learning an academic discipline, or branch of knowledge. Biology, history, chemistry, sociology, math, and English are all different disciplines. Why is this important? Because different disciplines create, refine, and discuss knowledge in different ways. More importantly, experts in disciplines write about this knowledge differently.
Writing instructors will often discuss these differences using two terms: and . Genres are types of writing: reports, reviews, research articles, literature reviews, articles, chapters, grant requests are all separate writing genres. Writing in different disciplines uses different genres; for example, a biologist may write structured articles detailing experiments and grant proposals, while a historian will write researched articles making arguments or even larger non-fiction books. Any genre of writing has different rules, or conventions, that writers will follow. In the “Research” chapter of this text, we discuss MLA citation which is a convention for citing sources in writing often used in composition classes and in the discipline of English. Conventions define a reader’s expectations for the writer; outside of classroom assignments, they guide writers beginning a project. A chemist writing a scholarly article describing her experiment and its results will know the conventions of scientific writing and the more specific requirements for the journals that publish such articles.
For your comp classes, think of each assignment as a genre, with the conventions described in the assignment sheet. The assignment sheet presents you with your instructor’s expectations, such as the paper’s length, the range of topics, research requirements (if any), and the due dates. Read the assignment carefully to ensure you understand the assignment’s conventions. Choose an appropriate topic and if you’re struggling with topic choice discuss your difficulties with your instructor. As you work on your draft, be sure that your paper will be developed enough to meet the minimum length requirements. Meeting these conventions will be crucial to your success.
You should also remember that you’re learning basic writing techniques and rhetorical principles. As your studies progress, you will learn new genres and conventions. For example, you may never need to use MLA citation after you finish your composition class; instead, your discipline may use APA or Chicago style citation systems. The rules you learn in your composition classes are not necessarily absolute; we’re introducing you to rhetoric and writing, but you’ll also learn how to write in your chosen discipline.
Don’t forget to consider disciplines, genres, and conventions when you approach assigned reading. Students often complain that scholarly articles are boring; they’re right. However, scholarly articles aren’t written for college students; their authors write for an audience of other experts in their discipline. A knowledge of conventions will save your time: for many scholarly articles, you may only need to read a “results” or “discussion” section, where the authors discuss the impact of their research. If you’re reading a magazine article, consider the magazine’s audience: who is the author writing for? What do those people know? Why might they be interested in the topic? Recognizing that types of writing and the rules that govern them change depending on the discipline is one skill of a successful writer. If you know how to approach a writing project, what the readers will expect, you have a greater chance of being successful.


Most colleges have a writing requirement for their baccalaureate degrees. The colleges that don’t often have strict writing requirements for courses across academic disciplines. Why? Whether you pursue an academic career or professional career, you’ll  need to write well. Employers often report in surveys that writing is one of their desired skills, and many employers complain about graduates’ poor communication skills. While the technology for written communication is consistently changing, from quill and parchment to electronic publication, the required skills have remained relatively stable. Later in this text you’ll learn that the ancient Greeks were establishing the basics of rhetoric over two thousand years ago. And those skills were primarily meant to be used by speakers and not authors writing texts. Regardless of the specific technology used, writing has remained an important academic and professional skill.


Many students make the understandable mistake of thinking that writing is an activity that a person either can or can’t do. Instructors have often read eloquent passages from students who claim that they can’t write. The truth is that writing is a skill, a skill which most people can learn. You may never write like Ernest Hemingway or Ta-Nehisi Coates, but you can learn to write clear, concise prose. This learning will take instruction and practice, just like any other skill.
Writing can be difficult; this is why many people struggle with writing, or why they report that they “hate” writing. Think of writing like playing a sport. People exercise and build their strength to help their performance in a sport; we ask you to read and respond to writing to build some of your brain’s writing “muscles.” Athletes study games and strategies to succeed in their sports; you’ll read successful writers and discuss strategies for effective writing. Finally, athletes play practice games and play against other athletes to hone their skills; you’ll write and write and write to develop your writing skills. If you do this, you’ll find that while writing may not seem any easier for you, you will have the skills necessary to successfully complete writing tasks.


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Writing and Rhetoric by Heather Hopkins Bowers; Anthony Ruggiero; and Jason Saphara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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